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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Emerson and Newman

By Brother Azarias (Patrick Francis Mullany) (1847–1893)

[Born in County Tipperary, Ireland, 1847. Died near Plattsburg, N. Y., 1893. On Thinking: An Address Delivered at Rock Hill College, 1878.—1881.]


THAT you may all the better understand the nature and scope of sound thinking, I will mention for your consideration two living thinkers in different hemispheres of our globe and standing at opposite poles of human thoughts—men at the same time acknowledged masters of our own language. They both have this in common, that each is retiring, sensitive, shrinking from mere notoriety, not over-anxious to speak and speaking only when each has something to say. They are loved by all who know them, admired by thousands and misunderstood by thousands more. One of these is Ralph Waldo Emerson. He is possessed of a mind like the Eolian harp. It is awake to the most delicate impressions, and at every breath of thought gives out a music all its own. His sympathies with Nature are so strong—so intense, so real—that they seem to take root with the plant, to infuse themselves into the brute creation, and to think and act with his fellow-man. A thing, be it an institution, or a custom, or a habit, exists; that suffices for Emerson; it must therefore be good, and useful, and beautiful in its own way. He is a passionate lover of the beautiful; he would reduce all morality to a code of æsthetics. Beauty of thought, beauty of expression, beauty of action, beauty of manners—these are the outcome of his philosophy. Supreme culture is for him supreme human perfection. But withal, he is a thinker who has learned how to assimilate the best thoughts of the best writers and make them fructify in his own mind. His lines of thought are narrow, but he thinks on them intensely. Not unfrequently his language only half expresses that which his mind labors to give utterance to. Some of his assertions are riddles. He speaks with the mysteriousness of the Sphinx. He disdains argument. He will not reason with you. He is content to throw out the hint or the suggestion; you may take it or leave it. He never obtrudes himself upon you.

Unfortunately for Emerson and the value of his utterances, he ignores the supernatural in man. His view of religion is that of a merely human institution. He is tolerant only in certain directions. He has never acquired the large-sightedness that is expected from a man of his culture. Let him expatiate on the Nature he loves, on society, on manners, on experience, on letters and social aims, and he is admirable, suggestive, original; but once he descends to concrete living issues, we find only the lifeless bones of intolerance dressed up with the time-worn garments of New England puritanical prejudices. I hold this man up to you that you may learn both from his strength and his weakness. You can no more make a model of his mind than you can of his style. He is in some respects a law to himself. The secret of his success lies in this: that he does not isolate a thought; he studies its relations so far as his intellectual vision ranges. Could you imbibe his sympathy for Nature without becoming imbued with his pantheism; could you acquire his culture without the dilettanteism that accompanies it; could you make his love for the beautiful in all shapes and under all conditions your own—looking above all beyond the mere surface into the deeper and more spiritual beauty of things—you would be learning the whole lesson I wish you to draw from his intellectual life.

And now that I have led you into the inner chambers of Emerson’s mind, and shown you the points of excellence and deficiency in his thinking, let me with less reserve place before you a still greater living example of this power of thinking, that you may in admiration, and at a distance, and each in his own sphere, follow in his footsteps. His word carries weight wherever the English language is known. His name is revered by all classes and creeds; and it is so because he is thoroughly honest in the expression of his convictions. He does not understand the art of special pleading; he has never learned the trick of covering up disagreeable truths or removing out of sight a fact calculated to tell against him. Endowed with one of the most acute intellects ever bestowed upon man, and well disciplined by severe study and profound meditation, it was his delight to grapple with difficulties. That mind, so ingenious and searching, never rested till it found the basis of an opinion or struck the central idea of a system. It is often to me a source of wonder how much patient, earnest thought its eminent possessor must have brought to bear upon an idea before he could see it in so many lights, view it in such different relations, and place it before the mind in all the nakedness of truth. But this is one of the characteristics of great thinkers, and such preëminently is Cardinal John Henry Newman. It is now about three years since I met him in the bare, modest parlor of the Birmingham Oratory, and I need scarcely add that that meeting is one of the most precious incidents in my life. I thought the very simplicity of that parlor was in keeping with the greatness of the man. Tinsel, or decoration, or an air of worldliness would have jarred with the simple, unassuming ways of the noble soul I met there. He had then lately returned from his beloved Oxford, where his old alma mater, Trinity College, did itself an honor and him an act of tardy justice in inducting him as Honorary Fellow. This veteran knight of natural and revealed truth looked old and worn; his hair was blanched; his features were furrowed with the traces of age. His manners were gentle and condescending. His voice was soft and beautiful in its varied modulations—now serious, now playful, according to the subject he spoke upon. With the most exquisite tact he listened or placed his remark as the case required. There was a charm in his conversation. As it flowed along placid and pleasant, his countenance glowed with a nameless expression; his eyes sparkled, and he spoke with all the strength and clearness of a man whose intellectual vigor is still unimpaired. I was not half an hour in his presence when I felt the spell of that irresistible personal influence which he has swayed through life, whether within the walls of Oriel, or from the Protestant pulpit of St. Mary’s or in the retirement of the Oratory. I then understood the power that shook the Anglican Church to its very basis six and thirty years ago. Though endowed with the delicate sensibility of the poet, Cardinal Newman never permits sentiment or feeling or inclination or confirmed habit to control or divert the severe logic of his noble reason. See for instance the caution with which he took the most important step in his long career. For years inclination and grace and the logic of his mind had been leading him into the Catholic Church, but he makes no move that is not first sanctioned by reason and conscience. His sympathies have gone forth to her long before proof or argument point the way; but he holds aloof till reason becomes convinced. He even keeps others for years from entering her Communion. And whilst writing a book in favor of that Church he does not yet make up his mind to become a member; he reserves to himself the chance of changing his views after the whole argumentative process influencing him has been placed before him in writing. And in all this he is acting sincerely and in good faith. Protestants question his honesty; Catholics fear he may be trifling with grace; but all the same he waits and prays and the truth grows upon him from the gray of dawn to the full light of day. Never for a single moment did he falter through the whole course of the long and painful struggle; from first to last he acted according to his lights; God respected the earnest endeavor and blessed it and crowned it with the grace of conversion. I repeat it, it is this strict and chivalric adherence to truth at all times and under all circumstances that has won him the profound respect and admiration of Christendom. He disciplined his mind into the habit of seeing things as they are and of expressing them as he sees them, till it has become an impossibility for him to do otherwise.

His is a mind well worth your study. Its logical acuteness is something marvellous. Its analyzing power is searching and exhaustive. Its introspection seems to be all-seeing. He understands so well the checks and limitations of the human intellect that he is never satisfied to accept an idea for the reasons on its face. He goes back of the formal demonstration to what he considers the far more powerful motives of credibility. The syllogism says not all. The real convincing and abiding reasons on which a proposition is accepted as true are beyond either premises or conclusion. “As to logic,” he remarks, “its chain of conclusions hangs loose at both ends; both the point from which the proof should start, and the points at which it should arrive, are beyond its reach; it comes short both of first principles and of concrete issues.” Besides all this there are undercurrents of sentiment and inclination, associations of ideas, obscure memories, half confessed motives, probabilities, popular impressions that determine the frame of mind and the tone of thought, and they all of them enter his calculations. “And such mainly is the way,” he tells us, “in which all men, gifted or not gifted, commonly reason,—not by rule, but by an inward faculty.” A mind recognizing all these elements of thought and coördinating them, and giving each its value and position, is the highest ideal of a well-thinking mind that I can place before you. But I have not yet said all.

Cardinal Newman’s mind is above all a religious mind. Religion is for him a reality—an intense reality; it is a sacred tunic clothing all his thoughts and making them holy and earnest; it is an essential part of his existence; it is the life of his life. And this is not simply the religion of sentiment or of the mere viewiness of doctrine and dogma, but religion based upon clear-cut doctrines and well-defined principles. “From the age of fifteen”—he tells us in one of those revelations of himself that light up his soul and show the man—“dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion; I know of no other religion; I cannot enter into the idea of any other sort of religion; religion as a sentiment is to me a mere dream and a mockery. As well can there be filial love without the fact of a father, as devotion without the fact of the Supreme Being.” Here is the central thought of Cardinal Newman’s intellect. All thoughts, all issues group around that one idea. To him who reads between lines, every sermon, every essay, every treatise of the six and thirty volumes penned by his hand, reveals a soul ever questioning, ever struggling with difficulties, ever solving to itself the problems and issues of the day, ever arranging and rearranging in clear, well-defined order its own views and opinions—and all for one object and with one result, that of harmonizing them with the teachings of religion. The thoughts and questionings and theories against which other strong and well-equipped intellects struggled only to be made captives of irreligion and agnosticism, he also wrestled with and became their master, each new effort giving him additional strength; and now, his laurels won, he looks upon the intellectual struggles of the day with the repose of a warrior who has been in the fight and has come out of it a victor.